CHARLOTTE – Do teams have to be tight-knit to have success? Or is that sense of brotherhood a result of success?
"Some of that is success. Winning does that," long snapper J.J. Jansen said. "But I think we had a lot of success because of the closeness of the team."
But it wasn't necessarily the winning that brought the 2013 Panthers together. It was the early season losses. It was the 1-3 start and the pressure that intensified.
Nothing makes a group stronger than overcoming adversity together.
"Closest team I've ever been a part of," tight end Ben Hartsock said matter-of-factly.
Seemingly everyone in the locker room agreed, starting with veterans like defensive end Greg Hardy and Jansen.
"You have to be a family," Hardy said. "That's what we have. We have brothers, guys that go to war for each other and give it all without question."
Said Jansen: "It's the most fun I've had playing football as far back as I can remember."
And first-year Panthers like safety Mike Mitchell echoed that sentiment.
"I haven't played on a team with these type of coaches, these type of teammates, probably since I was a 17-year-old boy."
Even rookies like defensive tackle Kawann Short were surprised at how welcoming the veterans were.
"These guys brought me in and took me under their wing, and I didn't expect that," he said. "I thought the guys would be hard-nosed. I'm coming in as a rookie, second round, trying to take somebody's spot, but these guys helped me out.
"It just showed the character and where we were trying to go as a team."
And they went farther than any Panthers team has gone since 2008, falling in the divisional round of the playoffs to the San Francisco 49ers after a first round bye.
"Our week of preparation leading up to that game was the best week of playoff preparation I've ever been around," said Hartsock, a 10-year veteran. "Guys were having fun, but it wasn't sloppy. Guys were focused, but they weren't tight. I was just so impressed with that.
"We were a really tight-knit group. We learned how to work hard and we had a lot of fun doing it. That's a special thing."
Now the challenge for this tight-knit group is to retain the chemistry they developed and take another step forward in 2014.
"Getting into the playoffs was a big year culturally for us. We've changed," Hartsock said. "Confidence is a huge thing with football teams. Now we get to come in next year knowing we've been there. We know what to do. We can walk with a little bit of swagger.
"That's when the snowball really gets rolling."